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B.C. storm created ‘unprecedented’ damage

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Russell Hixson: Even a 30-year veteran of road repair has never seen anything like the storm and floods of 2021.

Joe Wrobel has spent more than 30 years repairing B.C. roads and bridges with his various contracting businesses, but the construction veteran was hard-pressed to remember a storm that hit the province’s infrastructure so hard.

The storm, which struck the province Nov. 14, caused all major routes to the Lower Mainland to be cut off due to flooding and slides.

Wrobel is the president and general manager of the JPW group of companies (JPW Road and Bridge Inc., JPW Earthworks Inc. and Traction Innovations Ltd.) and is an engineer and geotechnical expert.

“I have seen each and every one of these modes of failure – a washout, a landslide, debris flow or flooding. I have seen it before and even been involved in repairing them,” said Wrobel, who also serves as a board member with the BC Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association. “But what I haven’t seen, and what is unprecedented, is the size and scope of this one. It hit all the strategic and critical infrastructure corridors within the province.”

Wrobel said he couldn’t help but first think of the impact the weather was having on residents and their safety.

“The first thought on my mind was for the people that were directly impacted and for the safety for everyone involved. I feel terrible and heartfelt sorrow for the individuals that lost their lives and their families and all those affected,” he said, noting he has never seen such large scenarios of trapped people and vehicles due to slides and flooding in the province.

When it comes to repairing the damage, Wrobel explained maintenance contractors take on the initial response in a system he believes has proven to be exceptionally effective. The province is broken into 28 service areas that each have a highway maintenance contract with a contractor. For example, Service Area 7, which includes Chilliwack and the Fraser Valley, is covered by a contract with Emil Anderson Maintenance. These contractors have their own equipment and their own various contractors.

“They do routine maintenance work, they do quantified maintenance work, and they also do emergency maintenance work,” said Wrobel. “So part of their contract is to respond to emergency events. They provide initial traffic control, initial repair work and assist with any rescue efforts as well.”

The contractor organizes the early repair work and gives the province an estimate of costs. The ministry then gives guidance on if efforts should continue or if it would like to proceed another way.

“The reason it is done this way is that there is no delay,” said Wrobel. “As soon as an incident happens, the maintenance contractor takes the lead and initiates work. It is quite an ingenious system and it has served the province quite well.”

While the task to repair such a large amount or road infrastructure at once is unprecedented, Wrobel said B.C.’s roadbuilders are tackling it.

“I think the roadbuilding community is performing very well,” he said. “All the roadbuilders in B.C. are ready, willing and able to help out.”

Emergency repairs are particularly complex as contractors have to make sure sites are safe, want to work fast to get traffic flowing again and must weigh various options. This includes doing detours, alternate routes and temporary repairs.

“You have to make decisions based on what you can see, what you know and what you understand and you have to use equipment that you have readily at hand,” he said.

For those that doubt climate change or the severity of its consequences, Wrobel pointed to the storm damage as glaring proof.

“The challenge we are going to have is how to build some resilience into the infrastructure, particularly the critical pieces of infrastructure, so we can prevent these types of situations from occurring in the future,” he said.

Russell Hixson is the staff writer for the Journal of Commerce where he covers the construction industry.  Before that, he spent years in the U.S. as an investigative crime reporter. He lives in East Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @RussellReports.

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